PC Forum should be more 'old boys' network

May 10, 1999


Esther Dyson, high-technology guru and gadfly, author, entrepreneur, and publisher, assembled one of the most impressive groups of technology personae for her annual PC Forum held in March in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The speakers and the audience for this annual confab are a who's who of the high- tech world.

For anyone who wants to know what's next in technology, marketing and business, PC Forum is a must-attend venue. Now in its 22nd year, it's an event at which kids from technology start-ups mingle with venture capitalists, government leaders mix with high-tech entrepreneurs, and authors and thought leaders gossip with geeks and propeller-heads.

The setting is awesome because everyone chats and mingles like undergraduates on campus on a sunny day at the beginning of a quarter. Folks are relaxed, friendly and unabashedly curious about the future of technology and business.

But no traditional, mainstream CEOs were in sight this year, except Katherine Graham, the 81-year-old chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Post Co., and she was a featured dinner speaker.

One of the wiser advertising agency types was there: Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP Group, owner of Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, Hill & Knowlton and Ogilivy One, spoke on a panel and sat a few rows ahead of me. Maybe because Sorrell came up through the ranks via a nontraditional route (he was on the financial side of the agency), he sees the light.

Geraldine Laybourne, Nickelodeon's creator, led a discussion on branding, the importance of women to marketers and the ins and outs of her start-up, Oxygen Media - a venture led by Laybourne, Oprah Winfrey and Marcy Carsey. Here was one of the most powerful and innovative women in television, describing how she's going to build out her business on the Net - and no one from the traditional CEO club was there to hear what she had to say.

John Doerr was there. He's the general partner of the hottest high-tech venture capital firm, Kleiner, Perkins Caufield & Byers (KPCB). The firm has backed many of the best-known Internet players, from @Home and Excite to Netscape, AOL and Amazon.com - more than 175 companies so far.

One strategic breakthrough for KPCB: It networks its ventures into a high-tech keiretsu, a mutually supportive system of individual businesses. One of the top money guys from Silicon Valley should pack in the traditional CEOs. Not a chance. I guess they'll figure it out when they buy aspirin over the Internet from Doerr's newest venture, Drugstore.com, instead of Wal-Mart.

Joel Klein, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice and the man responsible for prosecuting Microsoft, described the Justice Department's approach to limiting monopoly power without jeopardizing innovation. He was followed by Bill Kennard, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who shared his views on government regulation at the dawn of the era of broadband communication, and the man who could-but says he won't-regulate the Internet.

Sitting in the bright sunshine at the Scottsdale Princess hotel next to Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus software, I listened to Assistant Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers talk about the global economy, Internet access and the arguments for and against taxation on the Internet. David Nagle, chief technology officer of AT&T, and Charles Brewer, CEO of Mindspring, a hot ISP, debated the merits of opening high-tech access in the critical last mile to the home. A series of seven "debutantes," promising high-tech start-ups, were introduced at the gathering. Avid entrepreneurs seek out Dyson and her conference as a place to demonstrate their capabilities to the venture capitalists and, more importantly, to their peers. Strutting their stuff at this year's PC Forum were BlueMartini.com, a group that provides packaged software to start a scalable e-commerce company; response.com, a group that provides tools that facilitate audience segmentation and automated, but customized, Web communication with online customers; and Springfield Group, a venture that hopes to make it easier for existing small businesses to become Web marketers.

There was talk about networked devices. Bill Joy, vice president of research and founder of Sun Microsystems, promised that someday our home appliances will use their electrical power connection as a communications mechanism so they can phone home and alert us when parts are wearing out.

Author Virginia Postrel expounded on the future, claiming a looming jihad between customers who value "stasis" and those who want "dynamism."

I was surprised to see the high-tech world's first industry watcher, Gideon Gartner -founder of the Gartner Group and more recently Chairman of Giga Information Group-in the audience furiously scribbling notes. Other speakers included Barry Diller, chairman and CEO of USA Networks, Jay Walker, vice chairman of Priceline.com, Mark Cuban, CEO of Broadcast.com, Peter Neupert, CEO of Drugstore.com and Jerry Yang, chief Yahoo!

My quandary was, where were the leaders from the "old economy?" You'd think by now the heads of the slow-growth industries who desperately need top-line revenues would get the word. CEOs tell me they've cut costs to the bone, shrunk their payrolls to a minimum and need new ideas for totally new businesses.

Here for the 22nd year in a row was one of the greatest collections of insight and innovation the so-called New Economy has to offer, and not a traditional CEO was within shouting range.

Hey, you marketing executives out there: Tell them to get with it! Wake up your CEO and tell him (or her) to smell the Starbucks, before you become Folgers or Maxwell House. At your next management meeting, suggest the boss sign up for next year's conference. The business you save just might be your own.

Michael Krauss is a partner with Diamond Technology Partners in Chicago.
He can be reached at news@ama.org.







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